Latin American Studies 19th Century Caudillos
Natalia Sobrevilla Perea
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0141


The term caudillo originates from the Spanish word for head, cabeza, and describes the leader of a political faction, often linked to a band of armed men. Used in Spain since the time of the Reconquista, the term became increasingly common in Spanish America during the wars of independence. It initially had the positive connotation of a man fighting in defense of his land, but it gradually became linked to authoritarian rule by a strongman and was used pejoratively. Caudillos began their careers at the local level, and some garnered national support. Many took over the government of a country and were successful in maintaining it, while others faced strong opposition. In some areas they derived their power from the army, while in others they counted on their dependents. In his biographical essay Facundo, Argentine author and politician Domingo Faustino Sarmiento made a seminal characterization of a 19th century caudillo that is still relevant today. In the article, he describes the life and times of the leader of the pampas and makes reference to the authoritarian political system developed by the Governor of the Province of Buenos Aires Juan Manuel de Rosas, who controlled the Río de la Plata for nearly three decades with the support of his henchmen. One of the most enduring images of 19th century caudillos, particularly in the English-speaking world, is that of men on horseback who ruled vast swaths of the Spanish American hinterlands with the support of their makeshift militias. This was the view presented by authors such as Charles Chapman in the 1930s and Richard Morse in the 1950s. Subsequently, in the work of scholars such as John Lynch, Eric Wolf, and Eduard Hansen, caudillos have been understood as local Latin American variants of patrons, while others authors, such as Hugh Hamill, refer to them as dictators. However, most concur that the caudillos’ most salient characteristic was charisma, following Max Weber’s definition. Recent work has aimed to understand what made them charismatic and what their real sources of political power were. The literature on 19th century caudillismo is most abundant in Argentina, where it remains central to current historiographical debate. Caudillos are also regarded as significant in Bolivia and Peru, with new work appearing in the early 21st century. In the cases of Mexico and Venezuela, where caudillos were also noteworthy in the 19th century, the experience of the 20th century has overshadowed their former centrality.

General Overviews

19th century accounts of caudillos focus strongly on personality. Domingo Sarmiento attempts to come to terms with his contemporaries and make sense of the realities in which they lived. His book Facundo (Sarmiento 1978) is a commentary on the Argentine leader Juan Manuel de Rosas, who, according to Sarmiento, controlled the province of Buenos Aires through violent means and who eschewed the notion of becoming president of the whole of Argentina or of creating a constitution. One of the most influential early works on caudillos was Chapman 1932, which portrayed them as “men on horseback” who provided crucial backing to elites. Most scholars writing in English have interpreted 19th century caudillos as charismatic leaders who were able to attain power because they had a large following of clients. Charisma was understood, according to Max Weber, as the ability of one person to rule others by sheer strength of personality. It remains one of the most popular explanations of caudillismo, even though many of the leaders were not really that charismatic. Another widely accepted account, Morse 1954, correlates local Spanish-American culture and the legacy of the colonial period with the development of caudillos. A more structural analysis was put forward from the 1960s onwards in works such as Wolf and Hansen 1967, linking caudillismo with economic realities as well as the vacuum of power left over from the wars of independence. John Lynch is one of the most influential authors to have worked on caudillismo (Lynch 1992). He bases his interpretations on extensive archival material looking at the cases of Juan Manuel de Rosas from Buenos Aires, José Antonio Páez from Venezuela, Antonio López de Santa Anna from Mexico, and Rafael Carrera from Guatemala. He concludes that caudillos began as local heroes in the regions where they owned land. Hamill 1992 is a very useful collection of short texts on 19th and 20th century caudillos that collects some of the most classical writing on the topic by Sarmiento, Wolf, and Hansen, as well as Morse 1954 (albeit with a different title). More recent work, such as Sobrevilla Perea 2011 (cited under Bolivia and Peru), aims to understand the reasons why caudillos were powerful and charismatic, as well as to establish the differences between the caudillos that originated in the prairie areas of the pampas of Argentina and the llanos in Venezuela and those that came from the Andean regions of Peru and Bolivia. Scheina 2003 is a study of war and how caudillos took power; it will be very useful for those interested in understanding different areas.

  • Chapman, Charles. “The Age of the Caudillos: A Chapter in Hispanic American History.” Hispanic American Historical Review 12.3 (August 1932): 281–310.

    DOI: 10.2307/2506672

    Chapman describes caudillos as “men on horseback” who received support from the land-owning wealthy creoles if they could offer peace and security in exchange. He is convinced that even if they claimed to fight revolutions in the name of principles such as liberty, equality, or constitutionalism, the only substantive change that occurred under their tenure was in the person who governed and the ritual that was followed.

  • Hamill, Hugh, ed. Caudillos: Dictators in Spanish America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

    Hamill understands caudillos as the equivalent of dictators and an enduring characteristic of Latin America and Spain. Hamill’s introduction sets the texts into context and expands on his idea that caudillos are very particular to Latin America and part of the social fabric from the 19th century, and that their legacy continues today, after the intense experience of dictatorship during the 20th century.

  • Lynch, John. Caudillos in Spanish America, 1800–1850. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198211358.001.0001

    Caudillos derived their authority from their land, living in agrarian societies where the relationship between landowner and peasants was that between a patron and a client. They owed obedience to no one and did not share their absolute power with any other person or institution. Caudillos emerged when there was an institutional vacuum, where formal rules were absent and political confrontation was resolved through conflict.

  • Morse, Richard. “Toward a Theory of Spanish American Government.” Journal of the History of Ideas 15.1 (January 1954): 71–93.

    DOI: 10.2307/2707650

    Richard Morse explains caudillos from a cultural perspective. He believes that the history and culture of the Hispanic people made them more prone to this kind of government. Although not dealing in detail with caudillos, this article is important because it reflects the kind of thinking on Spain and Latin America typical of the 1950s, which saw caudillos as cultural phenomena.

  • Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino. Facundo. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Huemul, 1978.

    This political tract, directed against Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas, describes the life and times of Facundo, a provincial leader who ruled through terror. Sarmiento argues that caudillismo developed because of the influence of geography over the people, race, and culture. He was the first author to use the term, linking it to the pampas that, inhabited by gauchos, could only be governed by caudillos. Originally published in 1845, it has been extensively reprinted, with English editions in 1998 and 2003.

  • Scheina, Robert. Latin America’s Wars. Vol. 1, The Age of the Caudillo, 1791–1899. Dulles, VA: Potomac, 2003.

    This book studies war. Concentrating on a series of episodes in chapter-length essays that set a wide canvas in which to analyze caudillismo, Scheina concludes that these military men, the caudillos, often took power only to be revealed as corrupt leaders. This introduction to the topic will be particularly useful for those seeking to understand the trajectory of the term in different locations.

  • Wolf, Eric, and Edward C. Hansen. “Caudillo Politics: A Structural Analysis.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 9.2 (January 1967): 168–179.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0010417500004448

    Caudillismo began, in the 1960s, to be understood as a Latin American variant of patronage. Relationships were seen as structured around the exchange of benefits and protection. The patron provided for the client, who in return remained bound to the patron. For these authors, this explained the structure of power and the rise to power of caudillos, as well as their eventual fall and replacement by an ambitious former protégé.

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